January 18 – Not A Drop In The Ocean

Today’s factismal: There is not “a hidden ocean in the Earth’s mantle”.

One of the problems with the internet is that nobody knows you’re a dog; the information provided by experts is given the same weighting as the nonsense spewed out by “experts”. And because those who know nothing about a topic are frequently the ones who say the most (witness the arguments over settled science such as evolution or climate change), good information is frequently overwhelmed by bad or misleading memes. One of the most egregious sites for these erroneous ideas is IFL Science (in general, any site that uses curse words in its title is unlikely to provide actual information) which is attempting to be the Discovery Channel of the internet (this is not a compliment).

The different layers of the Earth. Only the outer core is molten; everything else s solid!

The different layers of the Earth. Only the outer core is molten; everything else is solid!

As an example of the quality of IFL Science’s contributions, consider this one: Found! Hidden Ocean Locked Up Deep in Earth’s Mantle. This particular piece of wretched journalistic excess first appeared nearly a year ago but it has been resurrected as all things are on the internet. In the author’s deathless prose, he gushes about the search for a “deep reservoir for water” in a part of the mantle known as the transition zone. Though the author does eventually point out that the “water” is actually hydrogen and hydoxyl ions that are chemically bound to the mantle material, that only happens after he makes the misleading claim that there could be three ocean’s worth of water in the mantle.

Why is the claim so misleading? Because he provides absolutely no context for the statement and it gives people the idea that the water is in some huge, interior ocean. Yes, there could be enough “water” in the deep mantle to fill the oceans three times over. But what is left out is that the mantle is so large that the water makes up just 0.0001% of the mantle’s mass and it is spread out rather than being concentrated as a specific reservoir. To put it another way, if you were to fill up an Olympic swimming pool with dry sand and then pour a two liter bottle of water over the top, that is how “wet” the mantle would be and about how concentrated it would be.

And the problem with the hyperbole is that it distracts from the important part of the research. You see, the mantle is almost completely solid. The upper-most 7% of the mantle, known as the aesthenosphere, is the most molten part with up to 5% melt (about the same as in a chocolate-chip cookie fresh out of the oven). But the rest of the mantle is almost completely solid. However, over long time frames, the mantle will flow. To understand how a solid can flow, consider ice cream or fudge; both of them are solid but will flow under enough pressure and heat. And if there is water in the mix, it can change the amount of pressure or heat needed to make the mantle flow. And that’s what the scientists discovered. Just having a touch of water in the mantle allows it to partially melt (remember that cookie?) and lets it flow more easily.

So the next time that you see a science meme, look to see where it comes from. And if it is from a site that doesn’t know the difference between discourse and dis curse, just ignore it. Trust me – you’ll be happier and better informed!

January 11 – Gut Check

Today’s factismal: Most scientific studies modify or refute earlier ones.

It is no secret that science isn’t perfect. Ask any scientist and she’ll tell you that most of her work consists of checking work done by other scientists to see if it was done right. Most of the time, it is (which is why most research isn’t published; it really isn’t very interesting).  But sometimes the scientist will discover that the earlier work was wrong. It may have been done incorrectly or it may have been described wrong or it may just have been a lucky fluke.  But for whatever reason, there are many times when what we thought we knew turns out to be not so right.

For example, let’s consider the tried-and-true statement that there are ten times more microbes living on your body than there are cells in your body; that is, that you are outnumbered in your own body! The basis for this statement came from the realization that instead of being just “human cells”, we all have a collection of bacteria, funguses, and even archae that live in or on us; collectively, they are called “microbes” because they are “tiny {micro} lives {bios}”. If you are a typical person, then 1,000 species of microbe live in your mouth. 440 more species live on your forearm, along with another 1,500 or so in your gut and 150 that thrive behind your ears. These species are so specialized and localized that the microbes on your left hand aren’t the same as the ones on your right! All in all, more than 10,000 different species of microbe live on or in the typical person.

In order to estimate how many microbes call you home, Thomas D. Luckey counted the number of critters in “intestinal fluid” (basically poop and other crap from the rectum – how would you like to be the TA assigned to collect specimens for him?). On average, he found that there were about 100 billion microbes per gram. Given that the average adult human has about a kilogram of crap floating around in their intestines, that works out to be 100 trillion microbes per person. At about the same time, another medical researcher estimated that the typical adult human has some 10 trillion cells. Add the two bits of information together and a ratio was born – microbes out number us ten to one.

But not so fast! A group of researchers has been looking at other researchers who have counted up intestinal flora (as they are euphemistically called) and those who have counted up human cells, and they found something interesting. More recent counts for intestinal flora put the number at about 39 trillion and the number of human cells at closer to thirty trillion. (What’s a factor of three among friends?) WHen you use the more recent numbers, it turns out that the number of microbes is about equal to the number of human cells in your body. Indeed, the number is close enough that the researchers half-jokingly suggested that you could have more human cells one your morning “movement” is complete!

Now this may sound like silly potty humor to you, but to a researcher it is serious (if smelly) business. That’s because we are still discovering exactly how a person’s collection of microbes (what wonks call a “personal biome”) affects their health. Can diabetes be cured by changing a person’s intestinal flora? Could an imbalance in microbes cause heart disease? Is it possible that a person’s microbes could make him more susceptible to stroke? Can you cure diseases by doing a microbe transplant? As you might guess, there are a lot of scientists who are very interested in learning the answers to these questions.

One group that’s working on this problem is the Understanding Human Oral Health at Stanford and UCSF. They are seeking people to participate in their projects that will link the biome and other factors to dental health. To learn more, swish over to:

January 7 – It’s All Happening

Today’s factismal: The London Zoo is doing its annual animal census this week.

If you stop by the London Zoo this week, you might see someone with a clipboard peering at the animals and making “one panda, two panda” noises. That’s because this week is the London Zoo’s annual animal census. Now it might seem a bit strange that a zoo has to count the animals it has, but there is method to the madness.

Zoos are where many people encounter exotic animals for the first time (My camera)

Zoos are where many people encounter exotic animals for the first time
(My camera)

The main reason that zoos do animal censuses is to ensure that every animal is present and accounted for. Today, that helps them make sure that the animals are being properly taken care of (and that no visitor has taken a koala home to snuggle with). But back in the 1700s, zoos were typically more about showing off your power and prestige than about taking care of the animals. As a result, many collections had dreadful records of animal abuse; many animals were either killed in “hunts” or allowed to starve in their cages. In order to make the owners of zoos more responsible, England required that all zoos conduct an annual census so that the owners could be held responsible for the animals that they claimed to be taking care of.

Feeding the giraffes is a popular zoo activity with people and giraffes alike (My camera)

Feeding the giraffes is a popular zoo activity with people and giraffes alike
(My camera)

Thanks to laws like that, today’s zoo is less of a place to see the last of a species and more a place to see species brought back from the brink. Much of that change is due to the London Zoo; when it was founded in 1828, it was specifically set up to perform scientific research in the interests of improving our understanding of animals and helping to keep them alive. It was so dedicated to those goals, that it didn’t even open its gates to the general public for nearly two decades! But when it did let the general public in, the researchers discovered that the people visiting the zoo could help, too. That continues today at the 10,000 zoos spread across the world.

Many zoos rehabilitate wild animals, like this bald eagle that was shot by a hunter (My camera)

Many zoos rehabilitate wild animals, like this bald eagle that was shot by a hunter
(My camera)

If you’d like to help your local zoo conserve critters, why not get involved with Frog Watch USA? This program uses volunteers (like you) to count frog species. They’ve been at it for 15 years now and have learned some amazing things about amphibians. To discover more, leap over to:

January 5 – Happy New Bird!

Today’s factismal: National Bird Day was first celebrated in 1894.

Before we get into the meat of today’s post, please let me apologize for my absence. A slippery patch of ice led to a sprained arm which led to more than a week in a splint. But I’m down to just a sling now, so the fun can continue!

A Yellow Beak Cardinal comes in for a landing (My camera)

A Yellow Beak Cardinal comes in for a landing
(My camera)

Just over a century ago, one of America’s leading architects had a good idea that didn’t involve bricks and mortar; instead of building am edifice, he reasoned, why not build an institution?  And the institution he built was National Bird Day. Dedicated to honoring our fine feathered friends, National Bird Day is celebrated every year on January 5 and includes such delights as bird watching, bird feeding, and (for the perversely-minded) fried chicken eating.

A blue footed booby in flight (My camera)

A blue footed booby in flight
(My camera)

A frigate bird soars over the Sea of Cortez (My camera)

A frigate bird soars over the Sea of Cortez
(My camera)

But why celebrate birds? Part of the reason is because the 9,800 species of birds are amazingly adaptable; they can be found on every continent and in every clime. There are birds that fly from pole to pole every year, and birds that never move more than a few yards. There are birds that fly for days at a time and birds that swim deep in the ocean. There are birds that make their own fresh water and birds that walk on water. Name a weird thing and there is a bird that does it (including a few that could have eaten something the size of, well, you). Despite their amazing adaptability, about 1,200 bird species are threatened with extinction.

If it weren't for scavengers like this Turkey Buzzard, we'd be neck-deep in dead stuff (My camera)

If it weren’t for scavengers like this Turkey Buzzard, we’d be neck-deep in dead stuff
(My camera)

Herring gulls looking for their next meal (My camera)

Herring gulls looking for their next meal
(My camera)

And part of the reason is because birds are the last living descendants of the dinosaurs. While most of their relatives went extinct following the Chicxulub incident, birds thrived and soon expanded to fill just about every niche that dinosaurs had filled (and some that they hadn’t). Until recently, we had thought that birds were just distant relations of dinosaurs, but thanks to improved paleontology and some spectacular fossils finds, we now realize that birds are, practically speaking, living dinosaurs.

The Hawai'ians honor the Golden Plover that led their ancestors to the isles (My camera)

The Hawai’ians honor the Golden Plover that led their ancestors to the isles
(My camera)

So go out and celebrate National Bird Day today. For some ideas on what to do, wing on over to:

December 31 – And So It Begins

Today’s factismal: The New Year will be filled with amazing science news!

This past year was amazing but next year will be even better. It will be filled with new discoveries and old favorites, new opportunities and old reliables, new improvements and old projects. Here are just a few of the things we can expect to see (numbers and dates are approximate):

January 4: Quarantids Meteor Shower
February 8: Centaurids Meteor Shower
March 9: Total solar eclipse
March 14: Normids Meteor Shower
March 23: Penumbral lunar eclipse
May 5: Aquariids Meteor Shower
May 8: Lyrids Meteor Shower
June 27: Bootids Meteor Shower
July 28: Austrinids Meteor Shower
July 30: Aquariids Meteor Shower
July 30: Capricornids Meteor Shower
August 12: Perseids Meteor Shower
August 31: Aurigids Meteor Shower
September 1: Annular solar eclipse
September 9: Perseids Meteor Shower
September 16: Penumbral lunar eclipse
September 27 Sextanids Meteor Shower
October 10: Taurids Meteor Shower
October 11: Aurigids Meteor Shower
November 28: Orionids Meteor Shower
December 2: Pheonicids Meteor Shower
December 7: Puppid-Velids Meteor Shower
December 22: Ursids Meteor Shower

High Energy Physics
New results from the Large Hadron Collider
New observations of Cosmic Background Microwave radiation

100 New species discovered
10 species go extinct

1,500,000 earthquakes
50 volcanic eruptions

July: Juno probe arrives at Jupiter
October: ExoMars probe arrives at Mars

And the best thing about all of these things is that most of them offer you an opportunity to join in on the fun. Just stay tuned and I’ll post new citizen science activities throughout the year.

See you soon!

December 25 – Merry Mishmash

Today’s factismal: Christ wasn’t born on Christmas. (Nor was Isaac Newton, for that matter.)

How would you like to be the least liked person at your church’s annual Christmas pageant this morning? All you have to do is start pointing out all of the things that are wrong with the display, starting with the presence of the Christ child. You see, if you follow the Gospels (and who doesn’t?) Christ wasn’t born in December; he was born at a much different time. We know this thanks to the shepherds, who were “abiding in the field, and keeping watch by night over their flock”. Then, as now, sheep spend the winter in cotes and only start going out into the fields for the night in the late spring.

If it makes you feel better, Isaac Newton wasn’t born on Christmas Day, either. Instead, he was born on what we would call January 4th; thanks to errors in the calendar that the Protestant British didn’t want to fix because then they’d be agreeing with the Catholics, Newton’s birthday got the wrong date. (They fixed it a few years later.)

This Nativity is beautiful, but it is wrong (My camera)

This Nativity is beautiful, but it is wrong
(My camera)

So there shouldn’t be an infant in the Nativity scene. But the rest of it is OK, right? Wrong. Another common mistake is the representation of three “wise men” being at the manger with the Holy Family. The only problem with that is the Magi didn’t show up at Christ’s birth; instead, they arrived some time later, after an unfortunate stop at Herod’s palace. (This is why the Feast of Epiphany, which closes out the Christmas season {and marks the start of Mardi Gras season}, happens on January 6.) The other problem is that the Magi aren’t specifically mentioned as being kings; they could have been itinerant astrologers as was common in that period. The other, other problem is that we don’t know how many Magi there were (or what their names were). Though tradition has it that there were three, which matches the number of gifts given, it is possible that there were only two or more than a hundred and that they were named anything from Balthazar to Zebulon.

OK, so there shouldn’t be an infant and there shouldn’t be any Magi. Now can we go on? Nope. You see those animals? They probably shouldn’t be there, either. You see, though there was “no room at the inn”, people wouldn’t have been asked to bed down with animals as that would have been ritually unclean; having animals sleep in the same place as people would have required the men to undergo a purification ritual at the temple. So the animals would have been turned out in corrals for the night and wouldn’t have been permitted to put so much as a hair inside while Joseph and Mary spent the night in the stable.

Cute? Definitely. Accurate? Definitely not. (My camera)

Cute? Definitely. Accurate? Definitely not.
(My camera)

Fine. We’ve gotten rid of the infant, the Magi, and the animals. Now can we go on? Nope – there’s just one last thing that needs to be fixed. You see that star? It shouldn’t be there either. Even though the Gospels do mention a star leading the Magi, that star doesn’t show up over the house where the Holy Family is living until the Magi arrive much later in the story. And there is also the question of if the star was really a star. Given the rather limited knowledge that people in 4 BCE had about astronomical phenomena, the word “star” could have meant a nova, a conjunction, a comet, or even an aurora.

So what would a true Nativity scene look like in December? It would look like a young couple struggling to put together enough money to make the trip to Bethlehem. The young man would be nervous and excited and a little proud. And the young bride-to-be would be just showing evidence of the child she bears as she glows with the serene majesty of impending motherhood. And far off in the distance would be all of the surprises that will make their life fully and truly blessed – not the least of which is the child that they will raise together.

And that is the true meaning of Christmas – people coming together in love to care for the future.  So I wish you the Merriest Christmas of all, full of love and joy and a bright future for you and yours!

December 24 – The Best Gift Of All

Today’s factismal: The Royal Institute has held Christmas Lectures every year since 1825, making it the longest running lecture series in the world.

Back in 1825, Michael Faraday noticed a problem: people just didn’t understand science. They thought of scientists as wizards who did things that ordinary folks could never accomplish. Sad to say, a lot of scientists of the day agreed with that view. That’s because most of them came from upper class families and had spent their childhood learning Latin and visiting foreign countries while the children of the lower class families had spent their time working in factories. But most of the upper crust thought that they (and the scientists that overwhelmingly came from them) were just “better”. But Faraday knew that sort of thinking was bunk (to put it politely); after all, Faraday himself came from a lower class family.

Faraday delivers one of his popular Christmas Lectures (Image courtesy Alexander Blaikley)

Faraday delivers one of his popular Christmas Lectures
(Image courtesy Alexander Blaikley)

And so Faraday decided to do something to spread the joy of learning and science and in doing so created one of the more popular modern holiday traditions. He decided to have an annual Christmas lecture, to be open and free to the public and held on the grounds of the Royal Institution itself. To put this in context, that would be like a researcher at the Smithsonian deciding to have an annual party in the dinosaur hall; obviously, it would need a lot of pull. Fortunately for posterity, Faraday had that pull, thanks to his many successes as an experimental physicist. Even more fortunately, Faraday was very clever as well as being very smart; rather than do every lecture himself, he decided to alternate as a lecturer with other scientists and even had the first two lectures given by famous scientists who weren’t him. As a result, the annual lecture came to be seen as both a mark of distinction that the scientists fought for and an opportunity to hear about real science that the public loved.

'Nuff said?

‘Nuff said?

That tradition has carried on for the past 188 years; only World War II was able to stop the series (and that was just for three years). This year will be no exception; the lecture will be delivered by Allison Woolard and discuss “Life Fantastic”. But if you can’t wait to get your science on, why not browse throught he collection of older lectures? Though they don’t have Faraday on tape (that not having been invented for another 97 years), they do have just about every lecture since 1973. So go, listen, enjoy!